The 1973 Pontiac Grand Am started out in the development stages as a GTO. But the muscle era was drawing to a close and, very much aware of that, Pontiac decided to change the car's character. Instead of continuing to make the GTO a stoplight drag star, the next iteration was to be more European -- more along the lines of a luxury sport sedan. With that in mind, Pontiac designers and engineers examined Mercedes, BMW, Audi, and Volvo as likely targets.
To backtrack a little, the Grand Am concept originated in the Pontiac styling studio. At that time, all Pontiacs were designed in one studio under the direction of William L. (Bill) Porter. Working with him were his assistant, Wayne Vieira, plus senior designers Ted Schroeder, Charley Gatewood, and Geza Loczi. Dennis Barnes was a young modeler in the studio.
The 1973 Pontiac Grand Am's head-turning grille was just one feature
of its distinctive soft front end. See more pictures of Pontiacs.
Porter, who retired as chief designer for the Buick LeSabre, Park Avenue, and Riviera, recalls that the notion for the 1973 Grand Am's soft front end evolved from the GTO's "Endura" bumper/grille, GM's revolutionary body-color nose, which Pontiac introduced for 1968. Wanting to take that idea one step further, Porter and his staff did some collective brainstorming, while still thinking in terms of the next GTO. As a result of that session, Porter and Gatewood got together to sketch what ended up being the Grand Am front end, with its peaked prow flanked by "catwalk" grilles, plus quad headlights, an integrated bumper, and sharp fender end caps.
One of the givens in the then-GTO program -- which subsequently spilled over into the Grand Am -- was that the car had to be based on GM's new 1973 A-body, i.e., Pontiac's LeMans. Among other things, the GTO/Grand Am would have to use the new LeMans hood, which was already locked up. Because this had a raised center section, the Grand Am prow-nose seemed a natural.
Gatewood worked out the rest of the graphics and, being a superb artist, made a full-size rendering of the front end. Porter hung it on the wall opposite the studio entrance. The idea was to impress GM design vice president William L. (Bill) Mitchell when he next walked in. After all, Mitchell would be instrumental in selling the design and the soft-nose concept to Pontiac management.
Wayne Vieira, who would become chief designer for GM's Saturn small-car subsidiary, confirms that "Charley Gatewood was the designer who came up with the original front-end sketch. Charley's a very modest person, and he would tend to say something like, 'Oh, actually . . . I remembered an old sketch that Ted Schroeder did years ago. All I did was to do Ted's sketch over again.' But it was Charley who sold the idea."
Vieira continues, "And to help sell the design to Bill Mitchell, Charley did this full-size air-brush rendering . . . a white rendering with black grille slots. It really stood out from across the room. In fact, when Bill Mitchell walked in, all he said was, 'Jeeeeeeezus Christ!' And we were off and running. He brought people in to see it, and it was really quite exciting. The graphics on the front were so strong and unique compared to what was on the road at the time," Vieira recalls. "In fact, we all felt that when the car came out for 1973, it had by far the best front end of anything in the industry."
The technology needed to engineer the Grand Am's soft front end wasn't fully developed when the initial soft-nose designs were proposed. But a 174-day strike during 1972 gave GM extra time to make the soft front end feasible. "This was one of our first attempts to do a full plastic front," Vieira told us. "The technology hadn't yet caught up, and the car would have been very complicated and expensive to build [with the technology at the concept's beginning]. The division at first felt that they wouldn't have a competitive, quality car for the price. But now that we had more time to work on it -- due to the strike -- they told us to take another crack at it, and this started the process of a new design."
For more information on cars, see: